It was the summer before my senior year in college and I was, as always, poor and working part-time jobs to try to pay the bills. My friend Joni invited me over for “afternoon tea” at her house, a small garage apartment in the backyard of a pretty little Tudor in the area we all referred to as the “student ghetto” not far from the Strip and the University campus.
Joni was an art student, a painter. We met through working concerts and events for the University Program Council. I would occasionally visit her in the Woods Hall art studios at Woods Quad, still one of my favorite places on the campus.
The four-story Woods Hall, a Gothic Revival structure with cast iron galleries along the upper floors, was the first building built on the University of Alabama campus after the campus, including the library, was burned by Croxton’s Army during the Civil War. Only one library book was saved — a copy of the Quran.
The Woods Hall art studios always had a calming effect on me. The rich and pungent smell of oil paints, solvents, and various chemicals had a heady impact as one wandered through the studios looking at finished and unfinished works on easels or at paintings that leaned against the thick walls to dry. The Woods Hall elevator was always covered with the best graffiti on campus
My friend Joni was probably as broke as I was – as we all were in those days, it seemed. But she was known as a good host who threw great parties. Her October masquerade birthday parties were legendary.
Joni’s summer afternoon tea with me was to celebrate a painting she had just completed with inspiration provided by me. One time at my apartment she had spotted a panel of 1950s-era drapes that I always kept close by. These colorful drapes of barkcloth fabric with big tropical looking flowers and flowing shapes are among my very first memories. I remember the barkcloth drapes on the windows in the living room of the first house I can recall from childhood. The room had a red sofa, a green chair, and a table set that included a coffee table, two end tables, and a 2-tiered lamp table that took pride of place in the picture window.
Years later, my mother was getting rid of the old drapes which she hadn’t used in years, I asked if I could have a panel since the pattern was such a primal memory for me. She gave me all of them and I have kept them ever since – although some have been repurposed or given away. Two panels are framed in my current dining room as I write this. I still have two throw pillows covered with the fabric.
Joni saw a panel of the barkcloth draped over hooks in my living room and was immediately taken with it. She said she’d like to use the pattern in a painting. I gave her a spare panel of the drapery for reference.
Now, weeks later, the painting was complete and I arrived for the viewing on a sultry summer late-afternoon, making my way down the driveway to a walkway leading to Joni’s second-floor apartment. The doors and windows were open and strategically placed fans were blowing the thin curtains on each window.
Joni welcomed me and got quickly to the first order of business – the reveal of the new painting. It was resting on a chair in a corner of the room. The finished painting was of Joni’s cat perched on an upholstered side chair. The cat’s eyes were wide open, staring intently at the observer. The long window behind the cat was partially covered by my drapes. A jungle of green was seen through the window. Now that I think about it, Joni’s paintings were often reminiscent of the Naïve French painter Henri Rousseau in their use of color and unbridled primitive appeal.
It was a lovely painting made lovelier by the memories evoked by my favorite draperies. (I spotted that same barkcloth drapery pattern in a John Waters film many years ago.)
After we had admired the painting, Joni said, “Time for tea!” and motioned for me to sit at a small table next to a window overlooking her front yard – which was the back yard of the Tudor. Two places were set with teacups in saucers and paper napkins. Joni brought out a plate of saltine crackers and a store-bought container of pimento cheese with a knife to spread the cheese. From the small refrigerator, she produced an old tin coffee pot and began to pour.
The coffee pot was full of ice and tap water. The icy water was a perfect antidote for a steamy hot day. After pouring, Joni set the pot in the middle of the table. Sugar was offered in case I would prefer “sugar water” but I took mine straight. We refilled our cups from the pot as needed and spread pimento cheese on crackers as the sun set. The sky slowly darkened and the fireflies began to emerge from wherever they had been hiding all day. The cold coffee pot began to sweat and a small slick slowly spread around it on the patterned oilcloth table covering.
Joni and I laughed and talked into the evening; I still remember it as one of the most pleasant “tea” services I ever experienced.
Joni and I graduated around the same time. She left town and I lost touch. I heard she briefly dated a friend of mine but I never saw her again after Tuscaloosa. I’d love to let her know that I still have fond memories of that frugal and elegant Sunday evening.
These are moments brought to mind by fireflies in summer.